In the interests of speed, Cadance trotted with Spike on her back, because Spike had to more or less run to keep up with a pony's trot. They headed down the road toward the Everfree, passing occasional ponies, some of whom bowed.
"So, um, I guess if you're the Princess of Love, you already know what I want to ask about, right?"
Cadance laughed. "It doesn't work like that, Spike. I have some idea who you have affections for, yes, but I have no way of knowing exactly what you want to ask."
"Still, though. I guess, if you already know how I feel, it's okay to tell you..."
"It would be okay anyway. I'm practically your sister-in-law... Or aunt. I've never been quite sure if you look at Twilight as a sister or as a mother."
"Uh... both? Neither? I don't even know. She's my, um. I don't even know what to call it. I don't have a mother – I mean, whoever laid me was obviously not in a big hurry to hatch me and be a mom – but that never really bothered me, because Twilight is my... something. I don't know. She takes care of me and I take care of her. She teaches me stuff and she'd do anything to protect me, and I give her advice and I'd do anything for her. Kind of sort of like she feels about Princess Celestia, except with less hero worship, 'cause I clean Twilight's bathroom and believe me, it's really hard to hero worship somepony once you've cleaned their bathroom."
Cadance giggled, which was good, because Spike was trying to be funny. Everything he'd read said that mares liked stallions with a good sense of humor. "Well, Shining looks at you as a much younger little brother, and he's always regretted that even though he was in training at the Palace and Twilight was living at the Palace as Princess Celestia's personal student, and you were with her, he never had as many chances as he'd have liked to come visit and do some brotherly bonding with you. So I hope you don't mind if I consider you my brother-in-law."
"Sure, as long as you don't mind if ponies get weird when you tell them you have a dragon for a brother."
"Get weird?" She grinned. "Spike, if I told ponies I had a dragon for a brother, they'd either be impressed or intimidated. Now, when I tell them that I want potato chips with pickle relish and strawberries, then they get weird, especially when I tell them I'm not pregnant, I just happen to like that combination of flavors."
Spike laughed. "Well, anyway, whether you're my sister-in-law or just a princess, I need some advice."
"I, um..." He clasped his paws together and twisted his claws around each other nervously. "I kind of like Rarity?"
"Yes," Cadance said, looking back at him and smiling. "I know."
"So, uh... does she like me back? And if she doesn't, how can I get her to? And if she does, why hasn't she ever said?"
"Hmm," Cadance said. "From the time I spent with both you and Rarity in the Crystal Empire, after we defeated Sombra, I would say that Rarity considers you a good friend. She sees you as dependable, faithful, and honorable, and she trusts you more than she trusts most ponies."
"But I'm just a friend to her?" Spike asked dejectedly.
"Spike. You need to remember something." Cadance glanced back at him. "You're fourteen years old. And of a species that doesn't mature, physically, as fast as ponies, so the shape of your head and eyes makes you look like a very young foal who just happens to be as tall as a typical colt at cuteceñera. Rarity loves you, as a dear young friend, but if she felt anything more than that she would feel herself to be a child molester – even though you're older than you look and more mature than your age suggests, you still look like a young child and you actually are a child, albeit one with adult responsibilities."
"So it's just about what I look like? I'm not attractive to her because I look like a kid?"
"And because you are a kid." Cadance sighed. "I've been where Rarity is, though I was the one who was older than I looked. I was very young when I became an alicorn – a bit younger than you, in fact. And alicorns age more slowly than other ponies; I spent the next ten years looking like a teenager. Then I was cast into a magical sleep and spent a few hundred years sleeping on an island off the eastern coast. When I woke up, there was this young colt, about your age, shaking me, and I could sense he was as drawn to me as you must have been to Rarity the first time you met, but all I could feel was confusion and disorientation because I couldn't even remember having been put to sleep, so I had no idea why I was waking up in this strange place or what these strange foals were doing here."
"That was Shining Armor, right?"
She nodded. "Right. He helped me in my adjustment to the modern world, and soon I found I had feelings for him as well. But he was a child, ten years younger than me even if we didn't count the years I spent in suspended animation. I looked like an older teen on the cusp of marehood, but I was actually a fully adult mare, even if I wasn't fully grown yet. I felt embarrassed and... dirty, really, having a crush on a colt so much younger than me. Over time, as I recognized all of Shining's wonderful qualities, that crush deepened into true love, but it wasn't until he was actually an adult that I let myself admit to myself that I wanted to pursue this, that I wanted us to be more than close friends. And in our case, because I still looked like a teen, nopony had anything to say about us being the wrong ages for each other; nopony but me knew how old I really was. Well, and Aunt Celestia, but I don't think she noticed; she's so much older than everypony now, I'm not sure she'd be able to tell that ponies are inappropriate for each other on the basis of age unless one's a blank-flanked small foal."
"Also, you were both ponies," Spike said. "I've... I've actually heard ponies say things about how I shouldn't be raised with ponies because what if I grow up to fall in love with ponies?"
"Really? Who said such a horrible thing to you?"
"They didn't say it to me. I was kind of eavesdropping. And Twilight went into a holy tirade, wow, you should have heard her. It was awesome. So I always knew Twilight was okay with it if I fell in love with a pony, and I think she's okay with how I feel about Rarity, but I can't always tell because sometimes it seems like she doesn't take me seriously. Like, she thinks this is just a cute little crush and I'll grow out of it. But I met Rarity a few years ago and it doesn't seem like I'm growing out of it. I mean, I know she's not this amazing perfect princess of a mare that I thought she was when I met her, but that just makes me feel more strongly. If that makes any sense."
"Of course it makes sense. You can't experience true love until you know the other pony's character, faults and all, and true love is much stronger than an infatuation." Cadance said nothing for a moment. "I will tell you something I probably shouldn't if you swear to me to hold it in confidence. Can you do that?"
"Sure. I'll Pinkie Promise. Nothing you're about to tell me in confidence will ever pass my lips unless you tell me to do differently. Cross my heart, hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye."
"The fact that you are a dragon... is not an obstacle."
Spike blinked at that for several seconds. "Wait. Are you saying that... Rarity... is into dragons?"
"I wouldn't go that far. Let's just say she's not... opposed to the idea of... loving a dragon. The fact that you are a child is a much greater obstacle... but unlike being a dragon, that will eventually go away."
"Yeah, but when? I know dragons live a long time, but... ponies don't. If I don't look like an adult until Rarity's 80... I'll still love her, but how much time will I have with her?"
"I don't know enough about dragons to tell you. But I'll tell you this. Being a mare's close friend doesn't interfere with your chances to be something more than that. Most mares prefer to fall in love with a friend."
"Yeah, well, I'm not sure that's true for Rarity. She fell for Prince Blueblood before she ever even met him, and then he turned out to be horrible."
"She did?" Cadance laughed. "Oh, poor, poor Rarity. And poor Bluey."
"Oh... yeah, that's right, he's your cousin, isn't he?"
"By adoption, more or less, but he was also Shining's best friend once, and it was the two of them, along with another friend, who rescued me from the magical sleep. And the whole trip was Bluey's idea. He's not a bad stallion, just... a bit selfish."
"Sounds like Fluttershy making excuses for Discord."
"Well, perhaps it is. Perhaps Discord would have done better if he'd had a cousin to make excuses for him. Discord's problem was never that ponies made excuses for him; according to Aunt Celestia, he was seen as a monster long before he actually was one. If anything, his problem was the opposite; if you'll be seen as a monster whether you're good or bad, why be good? Have you ever thought about how you would feel if ponies treated you the way they usually treat dragons, even though you are well-intentioned, honorable and kind-hearted?"
"You mean... screaming and running away? But why would they do that? I'm just a kid; it's really easy to see that I'm too weak to hurt them."
"If you were malicious, that wouldn't be true. Your claws and teeth can rend stone; the fact that it hasn't occurred to you how dangerous you could be to ponies is a demonstration of what a basically good individual you are. But what if you were bigger, but still the same dragon in mind and heart? What if your greed had been reversed but not your greed-growth? Or what if you were the size of one of the adolescent dragons you encountered, and you had no pony family or friends, and all anypony ever did was run away or attack you, regardless of your intentions?"
"I... guess I'd probably be a hermit or something."
"That's true. You might give up entirely on the company of others. If you were someone with a desperate need for attention, though... you might take to tormenting them, because then at least they will pay attention to you. If they're going to scream and run, or attack you, regardless of whether you're good or bad, and being bad allows you to steal from them and lets you command their attention when you want it, then why be good?"
"Yeah, but things aren't like that now. He doesn't have to behave this way."
"He's very old, Spike. He has a lot of bad habits to unlearn, and a lot of old information that doesn't apply anymore driving his actions." She chuckled slightly. "Hopefully, a karmic comeuppance like this will help him to recognize both that ponies do care, so he doesn't have to pull stunts like this for attention, and that it's actually dangerous for him to do things like this."
"Yeah, but you and Twilight nearly got killed, and now here everyone is, bending over backward to make him feel better and help him."
"He also nearly got killed," Cadance pointed out.
"But it was his own fault!"
"And do you think he doesn't know that?"
"Well, he doesn't act like he knows it," Spike muttered. "He's all cheerful and making jokes."
"That's only because you didn't hear him begging us not to tie him up and fly him like a kite back home, last night." Cadance turned and grinned. "Trust me, Spike. Discord got his punishment. He spent at least an hour of the trip home, if not longer, complaining as loudly as he could... and neither Twilight or I could actually hear any of the words, so we had no choice but to ignore him or else we'd never have gotten home before I collapsed. Now that he's in a safe location, and so are we, we have the luxury of treating him for his illness, but when we were out by the ends of Equestria with a five-hour flight home ahead of us and those tatzlwurms around us and nowhere safe we could stay for the night with Discord until we got back to Ponyville, we had no choice but to treat him like a rolled-up rug, and he was not happy with that. Trust me."
"That doesn't mean he knows it's his fault."
"No. But it means that being cheerful and making jokes is his way of making the best of a bad situation, not an indicator that he genuinely doesn't feel anything. Didn't you hear him whining about how he needed Fluttershy? He's sick, he's in pain, and he's forced to rely on ponies he knows he's wronged, who have no reason to be kind to him. He's very much afraid, Spike, and very unhappy. He isn't actually enjoying this at all. It's just very important to him to try to project the image of being a happy-go-lucky creature who's never bothered by anything."
Spike sighed. "I guess. I just don't like the idea that no one is even going to punish him for making Rarity and Applejack sick, and for lying and dragging you guys out across the country, into danger, just because by chance he happened to get sick because of what he did."
"You could be right. But pony jurisprudence has relied more on mercy and compassion than on justice and punishment, for a very long time. I became an alicorn because I reformed an enemy with the power of compassion and love, not because I punished her harshly." Her voice hardened. "Don't get me wrong, there are enemies you can't do that with. Sombra needed to be destroyed, completely. Chrysalis... Chrysalis has the love and near-worship of all of her Changelings. She sees us as food. She can't be reformed. I don't know if my spell killed her or not, and to be honest, if I was told that she died from it, it wouldn't sadden me. Changelings are predators, and we're their prey. If we show them too much compassion, we'll die, or end up as drained husks." Her voice was bitter, a note Spike had never heard from Cadance.
"I... guess that's true..." Spike didn't disagree, but he didn't like hearing such harshness from Cadance. Cadance was a cute, kind, friendly princess of a fluffy, benevolent principle. Not like the Sun, which could burn, or the Moon, which presided over darkness and nightmares. Love was nice. The thought was occurring to Spike that all of the enemies Twilight had fought without Cadance had been reformed, at least ostensibly in Discord's case, and all the ones she'd fought with Cadance were either dead or might be dead.
"But that's neither here nor there. If we can reform an enemy, then by all means, we should. And in my experience, a lack of friendship, love or respect can turn a pony who could otherwise have been good into an enemy. It happened with my first foe, Prismia, who stole love to make herself feel better because nopony had ever shown it to her. It happened with Sunset Shimmer, who, from what I've heard, never understood that she needed friends. It happened with Aunt Luna, who felt that ponies didn't love or respect her as they did Aunt Celestia. And it happened with Discord, who was rejected by most of the ponies he knew in his life, and felt that he'd been abandoned by the few that did care for him." She shook her head. "Sombra didn't turn to dark magic because of a lack of love or respect, and Chrysalis is beloved by her Changelings. They would never have been good candidates for reform. But Discord is."
Before Spike could say anything else, he heard Zecora's voice. "Ho, my friends! Spike, and Princess Cadance!" This seemed to Spike like it wasn't a very good rhyme, and was kind of getting away on a technicality, but he didn't say so. "Between here and Ponyville's quite a long road, so what brings you out here to my humble abode?"
Spike had been engrossed enough in the conversation he hadn't even registered that they were almost to Zecora's house. He could see her hut up ahead through the branches.
"Discord's fallen ill," Cadance said. "He was claiming to have the blue flu, when he really didn't, and we went out to the ends of Equestria with him to get a flower that was supposed to be a cure. While we were there, we were attacked by giant creatures called tatzlwurms. One of them sneezed goo all over Discord, which caused him to turn green, become extremely ill, and lose access to his magic."
"Well, a temporary loss of Discord's magic sounds like something the rest of us would hardly call tragic," Zecora said, smiling. "But I suppose his illness I must attend, since my friend Fluttershy calls him her friend."
"Here's a letter from Twilight with the details," Spike said, jumping off Cadance's back and bringing the letter to Zecora. She opened it and perused it carefully.
"Blue flu... blue flu... it does not ring a bell," Zecora murmured. "I will have to think hard on how to make him well." She gestured at her house up ahead. "The patient, I fear, I will have to see. But first, would you two like to come in for tea?"
Zecora's tea was always guaranteed to be interesting, at least. "Sure!" Spike said.
"I don't know," Cadance said. "We're leaving Twilight alone with Discord. Is that wise?"
"Pinkie's there," Spike said. "Besides, do we really want to go back and listen to him whine right away?"
Cadance laughed. "Well, I suppose a moment or two to rest my hooves would be nice. I didn't do a number on them like I did on my wings yesterday, but a flight like that uses all your muscles."
"Then come in and make yourselves at home," Zecora said. "I've recently acquired a whole honeycomb, so I can guarantee that the flavor of today's tea is something you'll savor."
"Sounds great," said Spike, who was greatly in favor of whole honeycombs and their contents.
Twilight's examination of the various items from Discord's body identified no harmful bacteria that she could recognize, nor any poisons, but there was one thing that was clear: there was no thaumic output from any of the biological items.
This was, given Discord's power levels, absurd. A single one of Twilight's feathers had absurdly high thaumics. Even a feather from Scootaloo was thaumically active. (She'd checked when at one point the filly had asked her to make sure she actually had magic... a silly question to ask, since Scootaloo plainly had a flight field and just hadn't figured out how to point it down rather than out yet. Her wingpower-assisted scooter speed made that obvious. But she'd checked anyway.) Any loose item from a pony's body, whether it be a hoof clipping, a strand of mane, or a feather, was charged with a fraction of that pony's magic. The idea that Discord's body parts were not seething with his enormous magical reserves was ridiculous.
But given that Discord was the king of ridiculous, it couldn't be ruled out. She went upstairs. "Discord, I need a sample of fur, feathers or something from before you got sick," she said. "Is there any more reasonable way to teleport to your home than to piggyback on one of your spells?"
"To this day I have no idea how you did that," Discord said hoarsely. She had traveled to Discord's extra-dimensional home to chew him out for stealing books from the library, by following the teleport signature of books he'd been in the process of stealing (he'd claimed he didn't know you had to check books out of a library, and that he had just been borrowing them, but she'd never quite believed him.) That was when he'd admitted to her – under some duress, because she'd started using magic willy-nilly in his dimension and, well, maybe she had gone a little bit overboard- that he could barely read without magical assistance. With the use of the spell that read books to him, he could read a dozen books at the same time, and somehow his mastery of chaos allowed him to understand the cacophony that resulted. Without it, Discord appeared to suffer from dyslexia, though he himself had told her it was due to his chaos powers and was very surprised to hear there were ponies with the same problem. Apparently nopony had known dyslexia existed when Discord had been learning to read. He'd been embarrassed enough about the issue, as well as being embarrassed about the fact that he was ignorant about many aspects of modern Equestrian life because he'd been trapped in stone, that he'd actually stolen books from the library so he wouldn't have to admit to any of it.
"Is there some other way to do it?"
"I know where the windows are!" Pinkie said. "You just need to tell me how to open them!"
"There's a permanent portal in the Canterlot Statue Garden," Discord said. "And a semi-permanent one near Fluttershy's house, which is probably still openable. But if all you want is a sample of one of my feathers or something, you could just go to Fluttershy's house. She brushed my mane the last time we had Tuesday Tea."
"Discord, your mane is made of feathers."
"Your point being?"
Twilight sighed. Yes, of course Discord would have somepony brush his feathers. "Pinkie, do you think you could check?"
"Okie dokie lokie! And if I don't find anything by breaking and entering into Fluttershy's cottage, I'll break into Discord's dimension with the portal near there and burglarize his apartment for stray hairs!"
"It's... not really burglary if you have permission, and I know Fluttershy would give you permission since this might help with Discord's illness."
Pinkie pouted. "You're ruining all my fun."
"She's good at that," Discord said. He curled up his paw as if he were holding a microphone. "Pinkie, the city of Jokesville has been terrorized for months by the actions of a mad, masked mare that police are calling the Funkiller. While no prank or jape who's encountered her has lived to tell the tale, some witnesses who've narrowly avoided a fatal meeting have reported a general impression. She may be a purple alicorn with a permanent scowl on her face. Citizens are advised to be careful, and keep an eye out. Now over to you, Pinkie."
Pinkie had a toy plastic doll eye in her hoof, and was squinting with one eye and slowly moving the doll eye around, as if she were using it to see. "Thanks, Discord! Everyjoke, stay safe! And now over to Tom for sports!"
"Pinkie. Discord. Be serious."
Discord coughed. "Are you trying to kill me?"
"Well, if I were really the Funkiller, I might, given that you seem to imagine that you're fun. Pinkie, can you also let Rarity and Applejack know the situation, and ask them to pick Fluttershy up at the train station, because I don't think I'll get the chance? Also Rainbow Dash if you can find her."
"Okie dokie!" Pinkie put the toy eye back in her mane and hopped out the door, curly mane bouncing with every jump.
"What are you trying to prove?" Discord asked. There wasn't any challenge in it; it might have simply been a normal question, but his voice was too hoarse to tell for sure. Twilight decided to pretend he simply meant it as a question; if that was true it would be the appropriate response, and if it wasn't true, she'd have dodged one of his attempts to needle her.
"Normally the cast-off bits of a pony's body are charged with magic, and it's true for any creature with some level of magic – even griffin feathers have some magic, because griffins have flight magic. But the samples I took from you aren't radiating any magic at all."
"Then why are they green?"
"Good question. They stopped being green shortly after I removed them from you, which makes me think the green color is actually an aura effect. A very powerful one, since it's visible to the naked eye – most aura effects are only visible when ponies are using their magic – but an aura effect nonetheless. So that didn't shock me. But the fact that they have no magic resonance bugs me. You're so powerful, I can't imagine how your feathers and scales would have no magic resonance."
Discord nodded. "They should. I've seen magicless beings acquire large amounts of magic temporarily from using the fur from my tail plus an amplifier, or from..." He trailed off.
"I don't think I want to tell you. You might try to test it."
Twilight sighed. "Discord, do you want to get better or don't you?"
"Yes, but some prices aren't worth it."
"Listen, I promise you I won't do anything to you that you don't consent to, all right? I mean, I never would have in the first place, but if you need me to make it a Pinkie Promise—"
"You already did things to me I didn't consent to. You tied me up when I begged you not to—"
"There wasn't any other way to transport you safely, Discord, we've been over this. You weren't strong enough to hold onto the travois yourself, and we needed to protect you from the wind and keep you from thrashing around and throwing off the aerodynamics, so we had to tie you up."
"I still didn't consent to it."
"Would you have preferred to have been left behind in tatzlwurm country?" Twilight asked pointedly. "After two of them attacked you?"
"Three, if you count the one that made me sick."
"Fine, three. If we'd left you there to go get Princess Celestia to open a gateway so we could just pull you through, you might have gotten eaten before we even got to Canterlot!"
"Two alicorns together can open one of those gateways, you know."
"No, I didn't know, and if you were so eager to not be flown home like a kite, maybe you could have mentioned that then? Or, I don't know, maybe before we set off for the ends of Equestria in the first place? Oh wait, I forgot, that would have missed the whole point! The entire idea was to ruin my day with Cadance and take as much time and effort as possible!"
"Yes, yes, mea culpa. I'm sorry, can we get over it now? And I didn't think of it last night. Contrary to popular belief, I am not perpetually mulling over the strengths and weaknesses of ali – ali – ah—" He sneezed violently, getting thick green goopy mucus all over his bedsheets.
"Thank you for that very mature observation, Twilight, your bedside manner is amazing. When is Fluttershy coming back? Or Spike and Cadance? Or anyone besides you?"
Twilight passed a handkerchief through the bubble. "You've used up all my disposable tissues. I'm going to have to get more. I didn't want to leave you alone here, since you're sick and completely vulnerable without your magic, but if you really can't stand having me around that much, I suppose I could go shopping."
Discord used the handkerchief to clean the mess off his bedspread. Obviously even he had limits as to the level of grossness he'd tolerate. He then blew his nose with it, demonstrating that his tolerance for grossness was still much higher than Twilight's. "No need," he grouched. "I can make do with this handkerchief until someone comes back." He blew his nose again. "My point remains. I didn't want you to tie me to a travois and drag me back through the sky, completely unable to protect myself if the ropes broke or something—"
"You couldn't fly. How would you have protected yourself if you hadn't been tied up? I can tell you from personal experience, if you can't fly, waving your hooves a lot doesn't help when you're falling."
"I couldn't even scratch my nose, Twilight! Do you have any idea how itchy I was? Or how dehydrated I got with wind blowing in my face the entire time and not even a single tiny glass of water?"
"We gave you a hood to protect you from the wind, and we were flying in the other direction, so the wind should have been hitting the hood, not coming into your face. And I didn't have any water or I'd have given it to you, and we wouldn't even have been in a dangerous location like that with no backup if it hadn't been for you dragging us out there! Or even, I don't know, warning us about the tatzlwurms!"
"I didn't know they were big enough to harm us! They were supposed to be much smaller!"
"Why did you make them in the first place?"
"I didn't! Tatzlwurms are a real creature, Twilight, they're just... normally the size of a particularly large earthworm. At best a garter snake. They were supposed to grow to the size of... you know, cats maybe. Maybe a badger, maybe a medium-sized dog. Not several times bigger than me. I didn't even recognize them at first." He took a drink from the water Pinkie had left him with. "That's not the point anyway. I also didn't want you to pry off my scales and pluck my fur out, but you did that anyway."
Twilight sighed deeply. "I assumed you wanted to get better and you weren't going to be a child about it. I'm sorry, I was wrong. I won't perform any further experiments or give you any treatments unless you explicitly tell me I can, all right?"
Discord folded his arms tightly. "Oh, all right. Fine."
"So, what was the thing you were going to say that you didn't want to tell me because you were afraid I'd do something bad to you?"
He looked away. "Creatures without magic, or with low magic in a world with limited magic, have occasionally demonstrated the ability to get a great deal of power out of... drinking my blood. Or grinding up part of my horn and putting it in their food."
Twilight drew back, horrified. "...did... did ponies do that?"
He snorted. "No. Ponies are high-magic creatures; they wouldn't get nearly as much bang for their buck that way. Ponies have been known to... never mind, that's not relevant. But no, ponies have never tried to eat me." He shuddered. "One time I was in a world where the magical creatures had all died out hundreds of years ago, but the dominant species was very, very adept at getting enormous levels of magical power out of eating their remains... and the top-level practitioners of this type of magic were known to eat each other to take the magic that the other had eaten. Frequently. On a low-magic world, I'm not nearly as powerful as I am here – a little bit of magic goes a long way, but there's too little to draw from the environment and it's hard to push your own mana out of yourself. As if it's too thick – like the way unicorns usually react to trying to do magic in my personal realm."
Twilight nodded. She had had an easier time of it than most unicorns apparently did, because being the Element of Magic, she was more adept at using any sort of magic than most unicorns. Now that she was an alicorn she suspected it would be even easier. "So they drank your blood?"
"No, no, that happened on a different world. On this one... they cut off my leg and ate it. The goat leg. They were planning on coming back for the dragon leg later, but, well." He smirked. "They weren't used to so much fresh magic at once, and they didn't know my specialty is chaos. They broke every water main in the building, exploded all the lines carrying natural gas, and probably killed themselves, but I didn't stick around to find out."
Twilight realized that she was staring, and probably looked bug-eyed. She tried to moderate her expression, and found that she couldn't. The horror was too great. "...Why did you go to a world like that?"
Discord shrugged. "I was bored. I didn't know where Celestia and Luna had gone off to, but I hadn't had a good fight with them in months, and..." He looked down. "I... have to tell you the honest truth, Twilight. I love my chaos. I love everything about it. I loved the days when all Equestria was mine to do anything I wanted with. But sometimes... sometimes even that felt... boring. Predictable. Same-old. Ho hum, what am I going to do today? Mess up some ponies' personalities, swap the destinations of doors around, sponsor a nice round of rock sumo, figure out something to fall from the sky that I haven't done already... sometimes it got old. So I'd go exploring other universes, and sometimes... they weren't very nice." He looked up. "Besides, I didn't know they'd try to eat me until after I went there. It was a world of humans. You know from personal experience they don't usually try to eat magical creatures."
"You didn't seriously think I would try to cut off your leg and study it, did you?" The thought that he might have feared she would eat it seemed so over the top and irrational that she couldn't imagine it being true, but being afraid that she'd cut it off for study seemed more plausible.
"I thought you'd try to take a blood sample," Discord admitted. "Which, for the record... no. I'm not giving permission."
"I'm a pony, Discord. I'm not an alien creature who wants to eat you or drink your blood."
"I've been studied by ponies before. It went better than the leg eating incident did, but that's not saying much." He shuddered.
"All right. No blood sample. I'll reserve the right to try to talk you into it later if it turns out we absolutely need it, but that would only be if we absolutely need it, and I'll honor your wishes if you still say no." Not that she wouldn't set Fluttershy on him to try to talk him into it, if it turned out to be needed. "If what you're saying is accurate, though..." She put her hoof to her chin, thinking.
"Then what?" Discord prompted, finally, after a few moments of silence.
"Oh! Well, I can't be sure until I examine whatever Pinkie finds for me, but... it might be that your magic isn't just being suppressed, but actively drained. Which would be good. I mean, no, obviously, it wouldn't be good, but it would mean we could trace the drain and find whatever is causing it a lot more easily than if it's just suppressing your ability to use your magic." She considered. "Would you be willing to undergo a hoof biopsy?"
"Well, unlike a pony hoof, a cloven hoof has no real sensation inside it as long as we don't make contact with the leg itself. I mean, obviously you know that because you have a cloven hoof!" She laughed nervously. "So you know it doesn't have sensation. I'd like to know if your extremities – your skin, basically – is more drained than parts of your body that didn't physically touch the tatzlwurm goo. I don't know if any of it got into your mouth or not, so I don't know if my inner cheek sample actually represents a part of your body that didn't touch it. But the interior of your hoof definitely did not touch it, and because there's no sensation there, you wouldn't feel any pain if we took a sample from the inside of the hoof."
Discord seemed to think about it. "That would involve needles, wouldn't it?"
"Um, yes, but not poked into any part of your body where you could feel it! It would be completely painless!"
"You can do it if you can find drugs that will make me completely unconscious first. Though I have to warn you, the only drug I've ever found that can do that is alcohol, and it doesn't do it quickly."
"What about tranquilizers?"
"They don't knock me unconscious either."
"No, I mean to control your anxiety and relax you so it doesn't bother you."
"You want to remove some portion of my body with an undoubtedly very large needle. I don't think there are enough tranquilizers in all of Equestria to keep that from bothering me."
"Lots of foals are scared of needles, but the immunizations still keep them healthy."
"I'm not a foal."
No, you're just a grown adult who acts like a foal. She supposed that wasn't entirely fair. Fluttershy's reaction to having to go on the mission to calm the dragon hadn't been anywhere near as conciliatory and accepting as "knock me unconscious and then do what you want", and she'd had visible panic attacks simply talking about it. Discord was at least managing to talk about his phobia calmly. But still, why was a guy who was as powerful as he was afraid of something like needles? "Discord, you're possibly the most powerful magic user on our planet. Why are you afraid of needles?"
"Why are you afraid of quesadillas?"
How did he even know that? "I'm not! They just... ugh. They're... kinda disgusting. All that goopy melted cheese, and it isn't even the right kind of melted cheese, and it just... but that's not the point!"
"Mmm. Quesadillas," Discord said in a dreamy voice. "Gooey, goopy quesadillas. Just dripping with cheddar, and coltby, and Mountain King Donkey, and Chihuahua, and mozzarella... ooh, all of that gooey melted cheese..."
Twilight felt acutely queasy. "Discord. Stop talking about quesadillas or I'm taking your water pitcher."
"What a cruel, cruel thing to say!" Discord gasped, hands clasped to where his heart probably was, maybe. "I'm just a poor sick creature, forced to subsist on chicken soup and water, and you'd deny me my right to even fantasize about the more substantial food I'm not permitted to eat?"
"Fine! Don't answer me about the needles; you could have just said you didn't want to talk about it!" She flounced off, her wings involuntarily flapping a bit in the universal winged-creature gesture of annoyance. "I'm going to go back down to the lab now that I know for a fact the samples should have magic saturation and see if I can detect any differences in the level of magic – I wasn't using instruments calibrated for a very low level, so maybe there's some differences at a lower order of magnitude than I could detect."
"But I'm hungry."
"Oh, for the love of – this had better not be more jokes about quesadillas."
"All I've had to eat since I lost my magic was broth, apple juice, chicken soup, and a few donut holes. Couldn't I have some crackers or something?" He smirked. "They don't have to be con queso."
"Fine! It's not like crackers matter anyway!" She stomped into the kitchen, opened the pantry, took out the box of crackers – which was three-fourths empty despite having been purchased only a week ago, and she was going to have to have words with Spike about snacking – and went back into the main book room with the box. "I'll give you the whole box, that way you can eat them slowly over time whenever you feel hungry."
"Do you have any ginger ale?"
"NO." Ginger was good for upset stomachs, so on general principle she thought maybe she should get some for him, but she wasn't going to admit that to him.
"How about water?"
"You have a whole pitcher in there!"
"Yes, but it's not cold anymore."
Twilight seethed. With her face up against the membrane of the quarantine bubble, she pronounced, slowly and carefully, as if talking to a foal, "Then what you should be asking for is ice. Not water."
"That's ridiculous. Ice and water are the same thing! Next you'll be telling me that when you're bundled up in blankets I need to call you Warmlight Sparkle."
"I don't have the patience for this, Discord. I need to get back to my research."
"Of course you don't, I'm your only patient. You'd need to have another one to have patients."
He was winding her up deliberately, and she knew it, but she couldn't seem to make herself stop reacting to it. Twilight was moments from flying downstairs to her lab and slamming the door behind her when Pinkie bounced through the door again. "Got 'em!" She was waving her hoof wildly, with... something... in it.
Twilight went over to inspect Pinkie's catch. There were two small, stiff black feathers and a lot of thick brown fur. "Good work, Pinkie. This was in Fluttershy's house?"
Pinkie nodded. "All over a couple of brushes. I thought, what if this is her bear friend's fur? So I worried about that, but when I pulled it off, it was soft and kind of fluffy, and bear fur is kind of coarse and rough, so I figured it was probably Discord's and not a bear's, although it could belong to something else that has soft fluffy brown fur, but—"
"Nope, that's mine," Discord said. He was standing up in the quarantine bubble, craning his head against it, which was stretching the bubble in ways it was not intended to be stretched and unbalancing it.
Twilight realized with alarm that it was on the verge of toppling over. "Discord, get down, you can't—"
The entire bubble tipped. Twilight and Pinkie both jumped out of the way as the quarantine bubble fell forward, Discord slamming to the floor with a look of shock on his face and then his mattress, bedclothes and water pitcher all falling on top of him.
For a moment there was complete silence. And then, from under the mattress, came a long, drawn-out "Owwwwww..."
"Discord!" Quickly Twilight used her telekinesis to lift the mattress, sheets and water pitcher off of him. He was lying completely flat on the floor, or at least his head and upper body were flat; the rest of him lay flat on the bubble, but the bubble surface rose up from the floor, so his lower body, legs and tail appeared to be sticking up in the air. His muzzle was extended, jaw against the floor and his entire head aligned with his neck in such a way that his neck and jaw came together in an unbent line. Blood trickled from his lip, and his head was sopping wet. "Are you okay?"
"Never... better," he said through gritted teeth. "Owwww. Do you not know what ow means?"
"Well, it could just mean that you bumped your head," Pinkie said. "Or it could mean that every bone in your jaw is broken! Or maybe that your ribs are fractured! Or maybe that you got hit on the head so hard that you can't see straight and you see little stars dancing around everything! Or maybe—"
"Pinkie, hush," Twilight said. "Can you get up, Discord?"
He scrabbled a bit and got his paws under him, but when he tried to lift his head, he moaned. "I think I'll throw up if I try," he said.
"Let's check you for a concussion." She went over to the bubble and knelt down. For a moment she was worried about his unevenly sized pupils, before remembering that Discord's pupils always looked like that. "Look at my horn."
"Why?" Discord asked, and then yelped, trying to twist his head away and close his eyes, as she let her horn flare with bright light. She wouldn't let him do either one, holding him in place just long enough that she could see his large pupil contract to the size of the small pupil and the small pupil turn into a pinprick. "Ahhhh! Gah! Twilight, what are you doing to me?"
"Checking. You don't seem to have a concussion; both pupils contract in the light."
"Augh. But now I have a horrible headache and I really want to throw up. Oh, the light, it hurts." At this point he wasn't complaining about her horn; she'd released him and turned off the flare, and his eyes were closed and his paw was lying over them.
"All right. I'm going to pick you up and get you situated on the blankets and the mattress again, and then if you want I can bring you an eyemask." She wondered if a pony eyemask would fit his head. Probably, though it would most likely have to hook around his horns rather than the back of his head, as his head was flexible enough that sometimes, like right now, the back of his head seemed almost contiguous with his spine.
"All the blankets are wet."
"I can't do anything about that."
"I can! Give me back my hazmat suit and some clean blankets and I'll change his bed for him in a jiffy!"
True to her word, Pinkie had the bedsheets changed out in a jiffy. Twilight cast Magic Health Bubble on them to sterilize them, then tossed them down the laundry chute for Spike to wash. It was good that she got it done quickly, because Discord was quickly becoming intolerable. Every time he coughed or sneezed, he acted like the pain in his head was about to kill him, moaning dramatically and whining, although Twilight had scanned him for broken bones and contusions and hadn't even found a lump on his head. He had bitten his lip when he hit the ground, but oddly, he wasn't complaining about that, and aside from licking the wound had hardly seemed to notice it.
Discord was pacified with willowbark and ginger tea, laced with honey and hot chili peppers to mask the bitterness of the willowbark and clear his sinuses. What Twilight really wanted was to give him something that would help him sleep, but he'd already warned her that nothing he'd found would do that outside of alcohol, and alcohol seemed like it would be a terrible idea. Once he was tucked in and a blindfold wrapped around his head – it turned out a pony eyemask didn't work very well, but a sash tied around his eyes did – he finally succumbed to his exhaustion, and slept. At least Twilight assumed he was sleeping, from the snoring.
She used the relative peace and quiet to return to her lab and test the items Pinkie had brought. As she'd suspected, the feather and fur samples from Discord from last Tuesday were far more magically potent than the ones from today, despite the fact that magical potency would decay over time after removal from the body, normally. Something had definitely drained magic out of Discord. The question was, how deep had it gone? The snot from the tatzlwurm had coated him on the outside, but the urine sample and inner cheek sample, neither of which should have been exposed to the tatzlwurm goo, were equally devoid of magic. It was possible that Discord's innards were efficient enough to draw back magic from his urine before it was released – for obvious reasons, she didn't have a urine sample from before he got sick to compare it to – and it was also possible that the tatzlwurm goo had gotten in his mouth, so neither of those really proved that the magic loss was internal as well. She really did need to get that biopsy. Unfortunately, Discord probably wasn't deeply asleep enough to sleep through a hoof biopsy, given the effort it would take to force a biopsy needle into a cloven hoof, and there weren't any other body parts she could extract from deeply enough without causing him pain.
Half an hour later, Pinkie called down to her that Spike and Cadance had returned with Zecora. Thank Celestia. Hopefully this whole thing was something Zecora knew all about and could fix easily with a potion and then Discord could get cured and go home and be out of everypony's mane!
Well, a mare could dream, anyway.
Twilight got upstairs just in time to see Zecora startled by Discord's coloring. "You're completely green! A mare could have a stroke, seeing you this way. Is this some sort of joke?"
"Yes, it's absolutely a joke," Discord mumbled, seeming unhappy to have been woken up. "A joke on me. The joke of the universe. Really, why would I do this to myself? I'm miserable. And I almost got eaten by a tatzlwurm."
"Have you been infected by some sort of germ? And by the way, what is a tatzlwurm?"
"You've never heard of them either, Zecora?" Twilight asked, disappointed.
"If they are neither from Zebrica, nor the Everfree, then chances are my studies have not revealed them to me. I've been living in Equestria for many a year, but there's still much I have left to learn, I fear."
"How about Harmony Violets?" Discord asked. "Ever heard of them, or are you a total quack?"
"Mister, you are too sick to try your luck," Zecora said sternly. "Do not call the one who might cure you a duck."
Discord sing-songed. "Quack quack quack, you take that back. If I don't rhyme, it's a crime. They'll throw me in jail, I won't make bail, because I'm a zebra and I'm completely obsessed with rhyming everything I have to say and acting mysterious and all-knowing when in fact, half the time I'm faking it, quack quack quack."
Twilight was about to lay into Discord furiously for insulting Zecora, and she could see anger on Spike, Cadance and Pinkie's faces... but Zecora derailed them all by laughing heartily. "You're quite right! Half the time, I know less than ponies think I do. And it's true, I do rhyme!" She stepped forward, her face up against the quarantine bubble. "You're alive and safe. I think that's quite nice. It's obvious that you took my advice. But now here you've found another way to make chaos backfire on you. I must say, for one who claims to be chaos' master, it's surprisingly often you're caught in the disaster."
"Yeah, well, that's chaos for you. She's a witch, but if I left her now I'd lose everything in the divorce. Besides, she's still hot."
"If I were you, I'd strongly consider that divorce. You'd find a kinder mate in nearly any horse," Zecora said, almost teasingly.
"Are you offering? I'm flattered, but I couldn't possibly be seen with a creature so black and white. I'm all about shades of gray, you know. And purple. Shades of purple are good."
"But not so much green, it would seem."
"That doesn't even rhyme."
"Do you two know each other?" Twilight asked.
"Close knowledge is not how I'd describe it, but... we have had dealings, I will admit."
"If by 'dealings' she means that she's shown up to bug me and make totally cryptic predictions of the future that turned out to be completely wrong, then yes."
Pinkie turned to Cadance. "Should we be shipping this?" she asked in a very loud whisper. "Because I'm starting to think we should totally be shipping this!"
"At the very least perhaps we should be getting popcorn," Cadance whispered back.
Zecora grinned. "This is entertaining, I must confess, but I came for a reason, so let's get to business." Her demeanor became serious. "I'll need to know what has transpired. Just how, exactly, was this illness acquired?"
"Spike? Cadance? Pinkie didn't have much luck with researching in the books, but she was mostly reading myths and legends," Twilight said. "While Pinkie and I talk to Zecora, could you guys get started researching to try to find anything about tatzlwurms or blue flu? Or, uh, whatever it was Discord just mentioned. Harmony Violets?"
"Sure thing, Twilight!" Spike said.
While they were doing that, Twilight explained the entire adventure, with Pinkie chiming in to add the parts at the beginning that Twilight hadn't been there for. Zecora nodded as she listened. Discord was by now sitting up on his mattress, pouting, his arms folded. Twilight added that Discord claimed that blue flu was a real illness, and that Cadance confirmed it, though no one here had any idea what this green disease was.
"I must admit I've never heard of blue flu," Zecora said. "Or Harmony Violets either, if I must speak true."
"Great," Discord moaned. "I'm doomed."
Zecora smiled at him. "Oh, it's much too soon to admit defeat! Besides, your symptoms, at least, I can treat. Now tell me of them, if you would be so kind, and perhaps some remedy will come to my mind."
"What symptoms don't I have?" Discord groused.
"Your fur isn't falling off!" Pinkie said. "You don't have gangrene! You're not having seizures! Your eyeballs aren't bleeding! You—"
"I think he gets the idea, Pinkie," Twilight interrupted.
"I just think he should look on the bright side! Sure, you feel awful," she said as she pivoted toward Discord, "but think of all the terrible things you could be feeling that you're not!"
"If that was supposed to cheer me up, it was quite possibly one of the most spectacular failures you've committed in your life," Discord grumbled.
"I cannot treat symptoms that aren't there," Zecora pointed out. "It's the ones you do have that I need you to share."
"Do you absolutely have to rhyme everything?"
"No, I don't." She stared at him for several seconds. "But failing to rhyme causes my spirit some pain. So if you want me to treat you, you'll cease to complain."
"Oh, fine." He lay back on his mattress and pillows, looking quite cranky. "I have a terrible headache. In fact everything aches. My muscles all feel weak, and they ache. Summoning any magic at all is not only next to impossible but makes me feel like my head might literally explode – I summoned the tiniest bit of magic to make a chunk of rock that I could tell was weakened split off from the cliff it was attached to. That should have been the most basic application of disharmony, so easy I'd normally never do it because it's preschool-level disharmony, and it gave me the most horrible splitting headache to do it, and I don't think I could even have managed if I wasn't in fear for my life at the time."
"So magic causes you pain, and does not come easy. Does it also leave you feeling queasy?"
"Well, yes, but so does everything else. I feel mildly nauseated most of the time and extremely nauseated some of the time, particularly when the headache's at its worst. I have a hard time breathing because my nose is stuffed up and I keep coughing. My throat is sore. I feel hot and cold at the same time and they're both unpleasant. I'm tired all the time and sometimes I feel like I can't think straight. I'm thirsty all the time. My lungs hurt – when I do manage to breath in, it feels like there's tiny sharp knives mixed in with the air molecules, cutting at my windpipe and lungs from the inside. When I move quickly I see spots, and I feel dizzy a lot."
"Hmm. Well, it all sounds quite normal, for a disease. I'll try to find something to put you at ease. But as for a cure... well, there's none for a flu. Perhaps waiting and healing is all you can do."
"That's... not the answer I wanted to hear."
"Zecora... Discord doesn't normally get sick, and the fact that his magic isn't working is concerning me," Twilight said. "Are you sure this isn't serious?"
"It may be serious; it may not be. Time will tell; we must wait and see. I can concoct a potion that will give him back some strength and motion, and if his breathing improves, I'm sure that itself will bring him halfway to a cure." She frowned. "The magic loss is a concern. I hope that you'll share with me anything you might learn, as you research the nature of this disease. If it proves to be serious, let me know, please."
"Is there anything you can think of that could sedate him?"
"Sedate him? I'm sure that there are, but don't you think that's going a bit far?"
"She wants to poke me with a needle," Discord complained. "I told her she's only allowed to do it if she knocks me out first."
"Well, you are a draconequus. What drugs would work on you, I could only guess. It's your body; have you any insight on what substances could put you out like a light?"
"I could get really, really drunk."
"I think that would be bad even if you were well. As you are, that would probably make your life hell. Are there any substances that you know of that do something to ponies and something else to you?"
"Poison joke. I use it in liniment for muscle aches. I... get a lot of them, ever since I got freed from stone."
"Ah, the flower that taunts ponies in jest. What happens to you if poison joke you ingest?"
"Is that even a rhyme? You basically just repeated the same words."
Zecora sighed. "Please focus your mind, and answer the question, if you'd be so kind."
He squirmed slightly. "It, uh... it kind of, um... Well, frankly, it gets me high, all right?"
"The kind that relieves you of pain and stress, or the kind of high that drives you to excess?"
"The first one. It, uh, relaxes me."
"A small dose may be warranted for your ache. I'll try to find out how much you should take. On to the matter of what might grant you sleep, there are a few things I could try. A tea I will steep and bring back to you to see its effect. If it works, Twilight can undertake her project." She pronounced it pro-JECT, like the verb, which would have been awkward with anyone else, but Zecora's accent sometimes led her to put the stress on the wrong syllable anyway.
"Great, I get to be a guinea pig."
"As for a cure... a sample of the tatzlwurm's goo - for lack of a better word, that one will do – might help us to learn why his magic is failing. And that might be related to why he is ailing. Twilight, is there any chance you could get such a sample? Perhaps with Princess Cadance?"
"Maybe. Cadance and I had a really hard time with the tatzlwurm. I'm going to think who might be able to help if we go out there to get a sample. And I don't really want Cadance to have to do it; it was hard enough for her to fly out there the first time."
"Well, anything would be helpful that you can do. As for me, I'll return home to cook up my brew."
"Thanks, Zecora. You've been a big help."
"No, she hasn't," Discord said. "So far she's all talk and no hat."
"You don't need to worry about that," Zecora said. "I promise you when I return, I will have 'hat'." She nodded at him, and trotted out of the library.
Twilight turned to Discord. "All talk and no hat?"
"I was channeling Applejack."
Fluttershy was exhausted. It had been so wonderful to have a chance to observe the Breezies, to learn a few words of their language and speak to them – they were fully sapient beings like ponies, so Fluttershy's ability to understand animals didn't extend to them, but it had been easy for her to pick up a few words, at least. They were just so adorable. And so fragile, and so brave to face the world when it was full of so many terrible dangers for them!
But travel always sapped her of her energy, and dealing with strangers even more so. She'd met so many wonderful ponies – in particular, a mare named Tree Hugger who seemed even more attuned to the rhythms of nature than she was, and who Fluttershy thought might become a really good friend – but even when she enjoyed spending time with other ponies, it sapped her. All she wanted to do at this point was get back to her home and take a nap. Hopefully Spike and Angel Bunny had been able to take care of the animals, and she'd be able to do that.
There were Rarity and Applejack at the train station. Fluttershy broke into a smile. "Oh, hello, girls," she said.
"Fluttershy! Welcome back! You must tell me all about the adorable creatures you saw," Rarity said. Fluttershy's smile got brighter. She knew Rarity wasn't actually especially interested in the Breezies per se, but Rarity was interested in her and the things she enjoyed, and that made her happy.
"I'll be happy to, but I really think I need a nap first," she said. "And a bath. Maybe a nap in the bath."
"That ain't a good idea," Applejack said firmly. "What if you go underwater while you're sleeping?"
"Oh, I always have Angel Bunny or one of the other animals watching out for me if I sleep in the tub," Fluttershy said. "I'm just so worn out from all the traveling."
"Well, you let me take your bags –" Applejack hoisted Fluttershy's saddlebags off her back and wrangled them onto her own with ease – "and Rarity can make you some kinda fancy-schmancy bath to take the travel dust off, and I got fritters back at your house with your name on 'em, just waiting for you to come home so I can fry 'em up for you. And then you take your nap, sugarcube, all right? Get a bath and some food into you and then take your rest."
"That sounds lovely. Thanks so much, Applejack. Both of you girls are so wonderful, I don't know what I'd do without friends like you."
"Oh, it's nothing at all," Rarity said. "We know you'd do the same for us. And travel is wearying. We all know it."
"Rainbow Dash is workin', but she said she'd drop by later this afternoon to see how you were doin'," Applejack said. "It's scheduled to rain today, but she got the timetable pushed back so's it wouldn't be rainin' till after you got home."
"Oh, that was thoughtful of her."
"I thought you might want a bath, so I brought some of my scented oils. Did you want some lavender, or rose, or perhaps some lilac? Oh, I have cherry blossom too!"
"Lavender is fine," Fluttershy said. "You girls don't need to make such a fuss over me, you know. I was only gone for two days."
"Yes, but we know how stressful it is for you to travel on your own," Rarity said.
"'Asides, Twilight and Pinkie couldn't be here for ya and Pinkie in particular was mighty disappointed about that. She had plans for a big cake."
"Oh, that's fine, though, I really don't need a lot of fuss, and a cake... the fritters would be perfect. I don't think I'm up to eating much more than that. Are Twilight and Pinkie both really busy with work?"
"No, they're stuck with—"
"Applejack!" Rarity interrupted. "I'm sure the story of what Twilight and Pinkie are doing can wait until after Fluttershy's had a chance to relax and take her nap."
"Oh. Oh, yeah." Applejack chuckled nervously. "You don't go worrying your pink little head about them two right now, Fluttershy, you can hear all about it later."
"Did something happen?"
"Nothing important," Rarity said hastily.
"Yeah, but nothing you need to be worryin' about right now," Applejack said at the same time.
Fluttershy looked hard at both of them. "Girls?"
"It's nothing at all!" Rarity declared emphatically. "You just get some well-deserved rest after your travels and don't worry about anything. Twilight and Pinkie are perfectly capable of dealing with matters without assistance from any of us."
"Applejack, is that true?" Fluttershy asked steadily, gazing into her friend's green eyes, which skidded away from her own.
"Uh, true enough. Twilight and Pinkie've got things in hoof. Ain't nothin' you need to be bothered about."
"Well, if it's nothing that needs my help and nothing I should be bothered about, why don't you tell me what it is?" Fluttershy asked sweetly.
"No!" Applejack seemed to realize she'd been too emphatic almost immediately. "I mean, no, there ain't no need for that. If you're too tired to talk to Rarity about the Breezies, then we shouldn't be shootin' the breeze with you about anything that's been going on back here."
"But something has been going on," Fluttershy pressed.
"Ah, well, Princess Cadance is still here! You knew she was coming to visit Twilight this weekend, of course," Rarity said. "Well, she decided to extend her vacation by a day or so! Isn't that lovely?"
"It's very nice," Fluttershy said. "But if it was the only thing that happened, you wouldn't be trying to avoid telling me what happened."
"Oh, land sakes, Fluttershy, if you promise that you'll get your bath and your food and your rest before you do anything, I'll tell you," Applejack said. "But you gotta promise."
"I can't promise I'll rest, depending on what it is, because if it's really bad I might not be able to sleep. But I can promise I'll take my bath and eat the fritters you made for me if it's not an emergency."
"Well, it definitely ain't an emergency. Spike and Cadance and Zecora are all helping out too."
"I insist," Rarity said. "Fluttershy, you must get your proper rest. Promise us."
"Um, no. If you won't tell me what's going on I'll just go to Twilight's right now to find out."
The two mares looked at each other. "Oh, dear," Rarity said.
"Guess I went and botched it."
"Yes, but I should never have asked you to help me, since I know you have a hard time with secrets."
"No, I shoulda been able to keep a secret when it's gonna upset a friend if I don't—"
"Girls. What are you not telling me?"
Applejack sighed. "Discord went and got his fool self sick."
Fluttershy's eyes widened. "Discord is sick?"
"He was faking at first," Rarity said, "and, in an unparalleled display of rudeness, made both Applejack and I sick when we offered to take care of him!"
"Oh, it was worse than that, Rarity," Applejack said. "Don't you remember? We didn't offer, he volunteered us. It was Pinkie who offered, and he claimed that we'd agreed to do it when we hadn't."
"Yes, that's true, but we would have helped him, because we didn't want anything to disrupt Twilight's day with Cadance."
"But of course that was what that varmint was after in the first place, so after he got us sick, and Pinkie went wandering off after a balloon and Rainbow Dash flew off and left us all to deal with him—"
"But that was probably for the best," Fluttershy said. "Rainbow and Discord... generally cause problems when they're left together."
"Well, yes, but it meant that taking care of him fell on poor Twilight! And Cadance! And he managed to talk the two of them into flying out to 'the ends of Equestria' to find a plant to cure him—"
"When he wasn't even sick—" Applejack interjected.
"And while they were there, they were attacked by some sort of dreadful creature! Pinkie described it as a giant plant worm with teeth and tentacles!"
"Of course, seein' as how Pinkie wasn't there and she heard it from Cadance, it's possible there's a mite of exaggeration in that story. I couldn't rule it out."
"But nonetheless, even if it was slightly exaggerated, and we don't know if it was or was not, the fact remains they were attacked by a creature while trying to get a cure for Discord."
"And after they beat it, it turned out he'd never been sick in the first place, the lying varmint! He claimed it was some sorta friendship test for Twilight."
"But then apparently one of the tatzlwurms sneezed on him, causing him to actually become ill. Which if you ask me is a well-deserved karmic comeuppance, after he made Applejack and myself sick."
"So now he's over at Twilight's, and Spike and Zecora and Cadance and Pinkie are all helping Twilight to figure out what kind of a bug he's got and how to cure it."
"And you didn't think I would want to know that my friend was sick?" Fluttershy asked, a trace of sharpness in her voice that she couldn't quite suppress.
"Of course you would want to know! That was exactly why we didn't want to tell you!" Rarity exclaimed.
"It was Twilight's idea, but we were all on board for it," Applejack said. "Nopony wanted you to come home to a crisis where you had to drop everything and go take care of Discord when we knew travelin' would tucker you out and you'd need some rest. That's why we didn't want to tell you, because we knew, if you knew, that was exactly what you'd do."
Fluttershy relaxed slightly. They weren't being dismissive of Discord, they were being supportive of her. "All right. I am going to take my bath, and eat, because I promised, but then I'm going to Twilight's to see Discord for myself."
"I don't think you need to," Applejack protested. "They got Zecora and Twilight on the case. You're great with animals, sugarcube, but wouldn't you have just gone to Zecora yourself?"
"I don't think I can cure him," Fluttershy said patiently. "But I'm his friend, and if I know Twilight, she's focusing all her attention on curing him, and probably not very much on making him feel cared for. Which is fine, because we all have our talents and Twilight is very smart and she should be focusing on a cure, because that's what she's good at. But poor Discord is probably miserable."
"And he should be! He made Applejack and me sick for no reason!"
"But you're better now, right?"
"Well, yeah," Applejack said. "The disease he was faking, that he really gave us, turned us blue. We got over it about two hours later, after Discord had cleared out of town with Twilight and Cadance."
"That was good, at least," Fluttershy said. "Not that he got you sick, that was awful. But that he made the illness go away when he didn't need you to be sick anymore."
"'Need' us to be sick?" Rarity asked dangerously.
"Um, yes, for his plans to work. Not that they were good plans, or that he had any right to do that to you two or to Twilight, but my point is, he could have just let you stay sick, but he didn't."
"Ain't you cuttin' him a bit overmuch of the slack there, Fluttershy? Not makin' us sick longer'n he had to for his nefarious plans ain't exactly gold medal territory there."
"Of course not, but with Discord... baby steps. He's coming back to the side of good from being one of the worst villains in Equestrian history. He's not going to get here quickly or without the occasional misstep."
"Assuming, of course, that he ever gets here at all," Rarity sniffed.
"I find myself wonderin', why are you friends with a fella like that, Fluttershy? I mean, I know you say he's nicer to you when he's alone with you than he is with all of us, but given how bad he is... are you just friends with him 'cause it keeps him from wreaking havoc? You can tell me straight if that's the case."
Fluttershy sighed. "No, and that would be a terrible reason to be friends with somepony. Without our Elements anymore, I realize that the only thing holding Discord back is our friendship, but... the fact that he wanted friendship badly enough to try to give up his entire identity says how badly he needs to have a friend. You have to remember... he's the spirit of Chaos. For millennia, that's all he cared about. Chaos isn't evil, but Discord chose to use it for evil by not caring anything about any of the creatures he was harming. He was a villain, and he knew it, and he enjoyed it. Everything he knows about friendship comes from breaking them up for his personal amusement."
"And this is somepony you wanna be friends with, why?" Applejack asked skeptically.
"Because as soon as somepony offered him friendship... he gave that up. Can you imagine how much strength it takes to try to break away from an identity you've had for thousands of years? I know you spent some time in Manehattan learning how to fit into high society, Applejack, but you went running back to where you belong as soon as you realized you belong there. Discord has felt that he belonged somewhere, that he had a role to play and something to be, for thousands of years... and he's trying to reject it and learn how to be a good... draconequus. It takes a lot of strength and courage to try to become someone you've never been before, to learn to be something better than you are. It's very, very hard for him. But he's trying. Don't you think that, in itself, that's a trait that would make a pony worth befriending? The fact that they're willing to give up everything they've known about themselves and try to learn to be somepony better?"
"But darling, don't you think it says something about somepony's character that they were a villain in the first place?"
Fluttershy shook her head. "That isn't the point. If someone is willing to change and grow and become better, then they'll be happier and everypony around them will be happier, and no one will ever take that step if someone else doesn't make the first move. Once you've been a villain, it's hard to find anyone who'll accept you as a friend. But I think that anyone could potentially have been a villain, depending on how they were raised and what their life has been like. So I can't hold it against someone that they were a villain if they're trying to do better."
"Sounds like a whole lot of making excuses and general horsepuckey to me," Applejack said. "Discord ain't a foal, and he ain't an animal with a thorn in his paw. He can make choices, and he made bad ones."
"Yes, he did. And now he's trying to make better ones. But sometimes he's still going to make bad ones, because it's hard to change the habits of a whole life. Don't mistake me, what he did was terrible and I'm planning to have some very stern words with him. But... he does have a lot of good qualities. He just... I'm trying to get him to a place where he's willing to show them to anypony but me and sometimes Pinkie, but it's been like pushing a rock uphill."
"Oh, Fluttershy. We all know your version of 'stern words' consists of a sad face and the words 'I'm very disappointed in you,'" Rarity said.
"That's all I usually need," Fluttershy pointed out. "Especially with Discord. Most creatures hate to disappoint somepony that loves them, and Discord in particular has never in a very long time encountered anypony who was ever not disappointed or angry with him. The feeling of somepony caring about him and not being upset with him is new to him, and precious. He hates losing it."
"Well, I do hope you're right," Rarity said.
"I second that mightily." Applejack pushed open the door to Fluttershy's cottage. "Well, we got you home. I'll go see to those fritters, and Rarity—"
"I'm on my way already," Rarity caroled as she headed up the stairs to the bathroom.
Fluttershy sank down on her couch and sighed. Despite what she'd said to her friends... she really was irritated with Discord for pulling this stunt, right now, and she did feel a tiny bit of temptation to go take her nap anyway. But only a tiny bit. Discord was suffering... and probably making Twilight and everyone else around him suffer as well. Fluttershy couldn't let that stand without going to help. She just wished his timing hadn't been so terrible.